Iconic characters are often sent out into the world by their creators on a quest. The goal could be an object (Holy Grail, anyone?) but more often than not, the characters find themselves on a trail, battling their own fears as they unwillingly learn some lessons.
It’s a common thread that runs through many of this year’s biggest animated features: “The Croods: A New Age,” “Onward,” “Soul,” “Over the Moon” and “Wolfwalkers.” The main characters embark on a journey sparked by fear and the quest becomes a way to resolve it and grow. Sometimes the inspiration even comes from the deeply personal experience of one of the filmmakers.
“For me that was something specific — I almost died,” says Kemp Powers, one of the directors and screenwriters of Disney/Pixar’s “Soul.” “I got very, very sick, and was in the hospital for eight days and almost didn’t come out. And I just remember laying in a hospital bed thinking that, if I recovered, I’m going to actually give [filmmaking] a shot because, if I if I die this week, it’s like I won’t have done any of the things I had that I was going to put out into the world. Those existential things we’re trying to cover in this film, I’ve lived those moments.”
In “Soul,” the main character dabbles at the career he really wants as a jazz musician while teaching music to middle-school kids full time. It’s only after confronting his possible death that Joe becomes willing to lean in take the kind of chances that could set him off on a new path. It’s a life that Powers, who was a journalist before becoming a playwright and screenwriter, understands on a core level. Powers doesn’t think he could have pushed himself to launch a film career with the same intensity if he hadn’t had that come so close to dying.
“I probably would have erred on the side of caution and stayed at my job and continued trying to (write plays) on nights and weekends,” says Powers.
For “Soul” helmer Pete Docter, the film was also about seeing yourself as more than your job and not being afraid to step away and focus on what you’re most likely to remember at the end of life.
“The things that [Joe] sees as just detritus are actually the stuff of life,” says Docter. “His barber who he would have classified as a friend. He thought he knows this guy. He didn’t understand that he didn’t plan to become a barber and maybe just stumbled onto it. So, we’re showing him his life from a different perspective.”
Once Joe sees a full version of the world around him, he can return to his own life ready to really live it — his fear has faded.
Helmer Glen Keane, who won an Academy Award for the short animated film “Dear Basketball,” focuses on the childhood of a young girl named Fei Fei in “Over the Moon.” When the girl loses her mother, who had instilled a deep belief in the legend of the moon goddess Chang’e in her, and then confronts the impending remarriage of her father and his skepticism about the legend, she searches for a way to cope.
For Keane, the themes weren’t just about the retelling of this Chinese legend. It also reflected on life after the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everybody keeps talking about wanting the world to go back the way it was, but we don’t go backwards,” says Keane “We go forward. And it’s there in reading the script. I remember getting to the point where Audrey [Wells] had written that Chang’e goes into the chamber of exquisite sadness and those words just stop you in the tracks. It’s the chamber of exquisite sadness and by going through it, there’s joy on the other side. I mean, if all the rest of the pages of the script were lost, I would have known how to end that movie because of that one phrase there. We don’t go backwards. We go forward because of the richness that we’ve experienced through it. This is the message in the film, that we are going to face problems in our life and we are tempted to look back and to long for the simpler time and to long for a life where we weren’t challenged in this particular, painful way. But that’s wishing that a tree wouldn’t grow and face the storms that blow against it and strengthen its roots.”
Keane is fond of the storms that change the world of his main character and, in a way, create the fears that push her forward. Some of them are made even more powerful with restrained use of dialogue.
“My favorite moment in the movie is this moment when Fei Fei’s world is turned upside down,” says Keane. “There is this moment when her dad introduces her to Mrs. Zhong and she is wondering why she is there. A bowl of dates is knocked over and Fei Fei, Mrs. Zhong and Fei Fei’s dad bend down to pick up the dates and Fei Fei sees a look between the two of them. It’s just a look and then she sees their hands touch and how they keep their hands together. And you cut to the look on Fei Fei’s face and there’s no dialogue. But this moment is the titanic cataclysm that turns her world upside down.”
In “Onward,” two brothers who lost their father early in life find themselves in possession of some magical instruments — a wizard’s staff, a special gem and a visitation spell that can bring back their dad for just one day. Ian, the brother who receives the items for his birthday, is terrified and curious at the same time when he is presented with them.
Helmer Dan Scanlon, who lost his own father at a very young age, believes these journeys through film can have a cathartic impact. After all, everyone fears loss and must confront it at some point.
“I think I think it can be healing,” says Scanlon. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been more woken up to personal issues in my life by books and movies. I don’t know why but I think because it takes the personal side out of it. You know, it’s almost like when people do therapy with a puppet. Suddenly, it takes the human out of it and it really catches you off-guard and really allows you to feel those feelings. What I love about art is when it can make me laugh, and have a good time, but also make me see something about my life or relationships that I’ve never seen.”
The spell that Ian is able to cast also only bring back half of his father, so the brothers spend the movie chasing their father’s pants throughout the film. It might seem like an unusual choice at first.
“For me, having lost my father when I was so young, never having known him, all you have is pieces of them,” says Scanlon. “I think the pants just came out of the humor of it. And when you think about family, it is a combination of truth and fear and emotions and also ridiculously awkward, funny moments. I wanted to take the schmaltziness off a little bit. Let them be able to be in an awkward situation with [their father], let them be able to laugh at him and joke with him, or even joke about him.”
The characters in “Wolfwalkers,” a story steeped in Irish folklore, are also contending with strained family relationships and wrestle their fear of the unknown and the terrifying rules imposed on them in 1650 Ireland, when the English ruling class routinely oppressed and physically tortured anyone they believed was beneath them. English immigrant Robyn Goodfellowe, a girl training to become a hunter, is quickly drawn to the wolves her father is supposed to destroy.
“I think Robyn is terrified of the future for herself,” says co-helmer Ross Stewart. “She can see as [her father] makes it clearer and clearer to her that she doesn’t have any options if she doesn’t do exactly what society expects of her. I think she does become really scared of the future that’s in store for her. When she turns into a wolfwalker, that’s overcomplicated as well because she’s got a taste of pure freedom that she can never really forget. And then she has to try and forget and be this good little girl who just goes to work and does exactly what her father tells her to do and what society tells her to do.”
Robyn is so moved by the moments of being a wolfwalker that she can’t go back to her old life, and she even pulls her father into his destiny as a person who can communicate with wolves, rather than someone who destroys them. The father and the daughter cross over when they leave their fears behind them.
The two also help unseat some of the oppressive forces that grip the town where they live. The people who live there have their lives changed when wolfwalkers live among them.
In “The Croods: A New Age,” helmer Joel Crawford confronts the social anxieties and fears of a prehistoric family when they confront the Bettermans, a more modern, advanced family living inside a fenced, engineered paradise. The Croods are looking for a safer place to live but also feel like they don’t belong in a technologically advanced future.
“The Croods’ world is about change,” says Crawford. “The world is changing, and the family dynamics are changing. And with that comes fear of the unknown. That was kind of a guiding thought for this next chapter of the Croods where they enter into another world that challenges their worldviews. This other world represents a modern world to the Croods’ primitive way of living and with that comes fear and fear of the assumptions of others.”
When the Croods and the Bettermans begin socializing and fraternizing, the comedy becomes complicated. Each family has its own social norms and is simultaneously afraid and fascinated by the other.
“One of the things we set out to do was to make sure there were no real villains between the Croods and Bettermans,” says Crawford. “Everybody was doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It all came from love but they were making choices out of fear. That was where we started. You have puppy love story of Guy and Eep, who come to a breaking point when Guy wants Eep to come with him but he ends up having to choose between Eep and a place he thinks his parents want him to find. When they begin to look at something from another’s point of view, they begin to have empathy and then each character kind of grows.
“Everything is taking a chance.”